Using Poetry to Reduce Shame (2002)

Presenters: Leticia Manzano (713) 528-6798 ext.268
Debbie Okrina, LMSW (713) 528-6798 ext. 305, 


One of the consequences of domestic violence and sexual assault is the shaming of victims. The perpetrator humiliates and degrades the victim by the act of violence. Friends and family may discredit the victim. And finally, shame can be a product of the way institutions in our society treat victims. The very label, victim, can produce feelings of shame. According to feminist psychiatrist, Judith Jordan, "A powerful social function of shaming people is to silence them. This is an insidious, pervasive mode of oppression, in many ways more effective than physical oppression" (Jordan, 1989). All women experience oppression. Whether or not they are survivors of violence, the prevalence of its existence in our society results in some degree of shame and silencing. One of the goals of healing is to reduce this shame. We believe that poetry can be a significant and meaningful shame-reducing intervention.


Survivors have long used writing as a healing technique. Writing allows the survivor to express her thoughts and feelings. The next step in the process, perhaps the most significant for reducing shame, is for the survivor to read her work aloud, and to realize that she can be honest and still accepted by her listeners.

Poetry lends itself to writing about trauma because it does not have rules. Poetry does not have to be linear or make chronological sense; therefore, it can encompass any survivor's reality even if some of her memories are unclear. Poetry allows survivors to use metaphors instead of directly retelling the details, which permits a safe measure of distance, yet the ability to retell precise feelings. Poetry permits the survivor to collect her strength and give voice to something that has not been expressed.

Poetry is also useful for women who have not experienced domestic violence or sexual assault. It allows them to express feelings about violence against women. Shame is often an underlying feeling for these women. Poetry, read aloud, serves to facilitate dialogue with other women on how to address these issues.

Using Published Poems

  • For education, published poems about domestic violence or sexual assault can    be an interesting way to open a dialogue that will allow you to facilitate an enlightening discussion.
  • Before you use a poem, read the poem yourself. Ask yourself how it makes you feel.
  • Published poems can also demonstrate that poetry does not have to follow rules. For example, spelling and grammar do not have to be proper. To encourage people to write, it may be important to shatter the myths about poetry that they have learned from being required to read classic poetry in English classes (which was often written by white males).
  • In counseling, it is important to match the feeling of the poem with where the client is. If you keep a notebook of poems that you are familiar with, you can pull out a poem that may speak to the client during that particular session.

Some Questions that Facilitate Discussion of a Poem

1. What is your reaction to the poem?
2. Is there a theme or message in the poem?
3. What is the mood of this poem, what do you think the narrator was feeling?
4. Is there a particular line that has special significance to you?
5. If you could say something to the poet, what would you say?
6. For counseling sessions: how does this poem relate to what is going on in your life?

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Encouraging Clients to Write Poetry

  • Poetry helps clients identify and express feelings.
  • Can be used in individual or group settings
  • Can be done in sessions or as homework.
  • Poetry allows for images and metaphors to be used. It can allow the client some distance through the use of a third person narrator. Fuzzy or unclear memories are sometimes easier to express in poetry than in journals or other forms of writing.
  • Clients are sometimes resistant to the idea of writing poetry.
  • Encouragement is important. Keep telling clients they can do it.
  • Eventually most clients will write. The slow starters sometimes feel the most empowered by and proud of their writing.

Some Suggested Writing Exercises:

1. Group Poem
2. Write a poem about how difficult it was to keep the abuse a secret.
3. Write a poem in the form of a letter to the abuser.
4. Write a poem in the form of a letter to another survivor, offering encouragement and support.
5. Choose one feeling that for you has been more frequent and more intense since the abuse. Write a poem describing that feeling.
6. Write a poem about how the world might be many years from now, when violence against women is no longer a problem. Try to include what it took to get to that point in history.
7. Free Style. Write about anything.

Sharing Poetry with Others

  • This is most important aspect for shame reduction.
    You want it to be a safe controlled environment.
  • Teach "audience" not to critique poetry but to listen to the feelings behind the words. This will happen naturally but you can facilitate it. As audience to make positive comments on the work.
  • Some will read very quietly. Listen close; comment on what you could hear. She will get louder.

Poetry and You

  • Secondary trauma may include feelings of shame. Other aspects of working with survivors can also lead to shame and frustration. Some examples: in our work with survivors, we cannot always see immediate results; many of our skills are difficult to define and evaluate; people on the outside may admire our work, but few understand or even know what we do. These and other aspects of our work can take us to places of vulnerability that we did not even know existed.
  • Poetry is a useful self-care tool for those of us who work with survivors.
  • Be careful with self-disclosure if you read in a group that includes clients. You may need to find another place to read your work.
  • Start your own group. Or, read at a staff meeting. Make an effort to share your work in a supportive environment.

Reference: Jordan, J.V. (1989). Relational development: Therapeutic implication of empathy and shame. Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center.


Maya Angelou "Phenomenal Woman"
In Phenomenal women: Four poems celebrating women. (1994). Random House
Empowering, celebrates being a woman who is beautiful for who she is not how she looks.

Sandra Cisneros "Loose Woman"
In Loose woman: Poems. (1995). Vintage Books
Defiantly addresses names women are called and how independent women are seen as a threat in our society.

Lucha Corpi "Romance Negro" / "Dark Romance"
In In other words: Literature by Latinas of the United States edited by Roberta Fernandez. (1994). Arte Publico Press.
A young girl is sexually assaulted, her offender offers a mare to her father as a marriage proposal, the girl commits suicide to avoid the marriage. This poem is available in English and Spanish.

Nikki Giovanni "Hands: For Mother's Day"
In The selected poems of Nikki Giovanni (1968 - 1995). (1995). Morrow, William & Co.
Explores how women use their hands to nourish and how this is our history and how we evolved as womankind.

Nikki Giovanni "Woman"
In The selected poems of Nikki Giovanni (1968 - 1995). (1995). Morrow, William & Co.
Describes a woman trying to be herself in a relationship with a man who is not supportive and coming to accept that the problem is him, not her.

Marge Piercy "The Ordinary Gauntlet"
In The moon is always female. (1980). Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Addresses sexual harassment.

Carolina Monsivais "Somewhere between Houston and El Paso"
In Somewhere between Houston and El Paso: Testimonies of a poet. (2000). Wings Press.
Beautifully describes the overwhelming feelings of a woman who works with teens who have experienced violent relationships and sexual assault.

Ntozake Shange "With No Immediate Cause"
In nappy edges. (1978). St. Martin's Press.
Addresses the frequency of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse; also addresses the fate of women who defend themselves.

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie "Forced Entry"
In Listen up!: Spoken word poetry edited by Zoe Anglesey. (1999). One Word.
A teen survivor's reaction to acquaintance rape, connecting her experience to violence against women around the world.

Sojourner Truth "Ain't I a Woman?"
In Ain't I a woman! A book of women's poetry from around the world. (1987). Random House.
Addresses issue of women of status being treated differently than poor and/or minority women. Also expresses the belief that women are stronger than men are.

Alice Walker "Be Nobody's Darling"
In Anything we love can be saved: A writer's activism. (1998). Ballantine Books.
Be yourself, don't listen to "them", great to use with adolescents.

Alice Walker "A Woman Is Not A Potted Plant"
In Anything we love can be saved: A writer's activism. (1998). Ballantine Books.
A woman is not to be confined or taken care of but is to be free.

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Useful Books

The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way by Rosemary Daniell
In this book, Ms Daniell tells about her experiences of teaching poetry in prisons, and in low-income schools. She also tells about her writing groups that were created for people who want to become writers but are very much like support groups. She provides many writing exercises and as a bonus, some great recipes of the food shared by group members.

Poetry Therapy: Interface of the Arts and Psychology by Nicholas Mazza
This book is a clinical look at the use of poetry in therapy. Mr. Mazza gives a practice model for individuals, families, and groups. He also addresses special populations, one of which is battered women.

Writing and Being: Taking Back Our Lives Through the Power of Language by G. Lynn Nelson
A very useful book on journal writing, includes exercises for healing and for moving towards public writing.

Writing Exercises

1. Select at least one of the following openings or invent one of your own, and write a list of 15 sentences, each beginning with the same opening clause. It can be about any subject.

I have known…
I have seen…
I am listening for…
I am waiting…
Let there be…
I have desired…
I have felt…

2. Imagine two sides of yourself as distinct characters, each with reasons to be angry at and to love or need the other parts. Write a poem in the form of a letter, where one part of yourself writes to the other.

3. Write a poem about a place in you home or the home of a friend/relative where events seem to revolve around.

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